Israel claims Syria is shipping weapons to Hezbollah

Israel President Shimon Peres said Tuesday that Syria is shipping weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The militant group, a powerful political party in Lebanon, fought Israel to a standstill in a war in southern Lebanon in 2006.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Israeli President Shimon Peres, seen here at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, said on the radio Tuesday, that Syria is delivering Scud missiles to Hezbollah.

Israel accused Syria today of arming Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group that fought Israel to a standstill in the 2006 Lebanon war.

"Syria claims it wants peace while at the same time it delivers Scud [missiles] to Hezbollah, whose only goal is to threaten the state of Israel," Israeli President Shimon Peres told public radio. "Syria believes it need do nothing more than let itself be courted by the world, while saying one thing and doing the opposite."

Though Israel has made such claims before, Mr. Peres's comments come in the wake of a report by Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai al-Aam that said Syria had recently sent Scud missiles to Hezbollah. While the report did not specify which type of Scud missiles were sent, even the shorter-range ones can reach most of Israel.

Syria's alleged arming of Hezbollah may be an attempt to force the US to make good on its promises of renewing diplomatic ties after a four-year hiatus. In a broader Obama administration push for a comprehensive Middle East peace deal, the US had announced last summer that it would send an ambassador to Syria. But Ambassador Robert Ford, picked for the post, has yet to be approved by the Senate.

“I would assume Syria is transferring weapons to Hezbollah and doing so now because it is a critical moment in which the US is facing a choice. Washington is starting to engage with Syria and having to reconsider its relationship with Israel in the light of recent insults by Israel,” said Joshua Landis, a US academic specializing in Syria. "Given this, Syria is ramping up the ante to show it is not weak and cannot be ignored."

Syria may also be testing the US to see whether it will withstand Israeli opposition to its attempt to woo Syria away from Iran.

“Arming Hizbullah is in the interests of national security as Israel ramps up pressure on the US to step back from engagement with Syria,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, a Syrian political analyst. “Though I have no evidence of the current allegations, it is no secret that when Syrian troops left Lebanon they gave arms to Hezbollah and it supports them in the media and politically.”

By most accounts, Hezbollah has successfully rearmed since the 2006 war with Israel. The group not only has more rockets today than it did on the eve of that war, but has expanded their range.

What Damascus wants

Damascus’ main goal in engagement and the peace process is the return of the Golan Heights; a policy that has been played out through the language of resistance. Damascus is afraid that if it does not apply pressure, the US will focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ignore the return of the Golan. The border with Syria has long been Israel’s least troublesome boundary.

“Hezbullah has been the only real challenge to Israel in the Middle East. It is Syria’s only card because it has been stopped from equipping its own army,” said Mr. Landis.

Syrian officials denied the Israeli allegation and said the timing of today’s statement was a cynical attempt by Israel to take the focus away from other fronts and thwart US engagement.

“These reports are part of a campaign to demonize Syria in a time when a super power like the US is trying to engage with Syria positively to achieve peace in the Middle East,” said a Syrian diplomat in London who asked not to be identified.

Concerns over the transfer of weapons are slowing down the Senate confirmation of Robert Ford, the nominated US ambassador to Syria.

There is little concern in Damascus that the delay will be permanent, but it will pose a challenge to Obama’s engagement with Syria in the long-term.

“Short term, this is but a little glitch because President Obama is committed to engaging with Syria,” said Landis. “But long term it’s hard on the US because they don’t want to be seen to be favouring Syria and Hizbullah over Israel.”

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